Originally, this article was published in Human Resource Executive Magazine in 2015. I’ve adapted it for coaching and coaches as it explores the symbolic nature of human communications.  Interpersonal communication is fundamental to the human condition. Through communicating with others and groups, we form a community, construct meaning through actions and objects, and forge strong, enduring, and productive relationships. Intentional and nuanced communication skills are foundational to building a viable coaching experience for the coach and coachee. Individuals think, speak, and act symbolically through artifacts such as habits, sayings, and behaviors all used to express the personal meaning, perspectives, and experiences in our lives. These symbols are constructs-of-meaning, and their construction, evolution, and longevity are crucial to developing self-identity and approaches to productivity.

For coaches who coach leaders or those aspiring to a leadership position, understanding the roles and influence that symbols and metaphors play in communication and leadership efficacy, they can enable coachee’s to increase their leadership effectiveness and performance, resulting in beneficial results for followers and organizational stakeholders. Coaches cultivating an awareness of symbols and metaphors with coachees may lead to “Magic,” the magic of self-actualization.

Leadership: Symbols, Metaphors, and Magic

Leadership is a symbol. It is also a metaphor for integrating our earliest experiences associated with order, power, and authority. Symbols of leadership are potent artifacts fueling social engagement. Securing an executive position, winning an election, or being sought out for advice are symbols associated with leadership. Leaders provide direction, instill purpose and motivate action using symbolic communication to influence follower beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors, and to offer compelling visions of the future. Effective leaders employ metaphors to marshal resources and galvanize power. In their 2010 book, Leadership as Lunacy, Jack Lumby and Fenwick W. English write that “… the essence of language for leaders is the use of metaphor.”

In organizations, as in families, leadership is socially constructed. Leaders and followers engage in metaphorical transactions, jointly creating meaning associated with an object, activity, or act of importance. Followers consciously or unconsciously entrust their leaders with their social and psychological well-being. Followers imbue leaders with meaning, believing they can fulfill desires or advance beliefs. As a result, leaders and their leadership are institutionalized as symbols of direction, security, or hope. Coaches understand the dynamics associated with the leader-follower relationship, which often alternate between tumultuous and tender, or disabling and enabling. Similar to family dynamics, these relationships are independently conceived and collaboratively forged, consciously, and unconsciously.

In his 1920 book The Ego and the Id, Sigmund Freud introduced his structural model of the mind, dividing it into ego (the conscious mind), super-ego (the conscience) and id (the unconscious comprised of instincts and drives). Freud hypothesized that the unconscious was an archive of repressed thoughts and memories associated with adverse thoughts, unfulfilled wishes, and painful or traumatic memories. He believed that the repressed material buried in the unconscious manifested at the conscious level through symbols often expressed through metaphors.

Metaphors as Magic

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote, “The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic.” While enabling coachee’s productivity and contributions to personal and organizational advancement are not magical, for many coaching professionals, it often seems that they work magic, enabling leaders to achieve organizational productivity and profitability goals. Because coaches support leaders in maximizing their capabilities, they need to possess insight and expertise associated with managing change, enabling reflection practice, and assisting leaders in developing their vision of their future. Coaches know that the mantel of leadership can induce fear and anxiety in leaders who can project these states on to other individuals, as well as workforces stimulating follower resistance and resulting in workplace instability. Coaches understand that leadership and changes that result from executive decisions can trigger unconscious responses in themselves and followers, resulting in unanticipated, dysfunctional thoughts, and behaviors. One approach coaches can use in assisting leaders in anticipating their own and follower’s concerns toward change and progress, as well as lessen resistance to endorsing the unknowingness of future initiatives, is through the framing and describing it through the use of metaphors.

Metaphors as Bridges

In his 1999 article, The Use of Symbols and Metaphors in Psychoanalysis, Dr. Robert J. Marshall offered that “metaphors provide the interface between the conscious and unconscious … [they] are mirrors reflecting all aspects of a person’s being … and are a more powerful mode of communicating with the unconscious than confrontation, interpretation, and explanation.” Metaphors reveal more about what we think or feel by creating a bridge between the unconscious and conscious mind. Metaphors enliven language in more vivid, engaging, or speculative directions. Leaders energize followers when they use metaphors stimulating ideas that surface to our conscious thoughts. For example, “Chairwoman Jane Jones planted the seeds of inspiration in the soil of the organization, cultivating a new spirit of growth and productivity.”

Metaphors as Education

Lumby and English (2010) wrote that “leaders traffic in language. It stirs the imagination, defines critical issues, and creates a collective consciousness in followers. Language is the ultimate form of the construction of symbolic power; it stirs humanity to manage change … the essence of language for leaders [is] the use of metaphors.” The rapid expansion of the 21st-century global marketplace provides opportunities for coaching professionals to enable leaders, as well as organizational growth. For coach professionals studying the roles that symbols and metaphors will come to recognize the power and potential inherent in these essential components of communication. In doing so, they appreciate the influence that these constructions exert on leaders’ personal growth and professional advancement, as well as the beneficial effects on organizational and societal evolution.

In his 2013 article, Magic and Psychoanalysis, Dr. Eugene Goldwater notes that “simply by speaking to someone, you can force them to think about whatever you want them to think about. No witch or wizard could ask for more!”

Human Resource Executive Magazine, 2015

This article was adapted from this article.

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